Penn State penalties should force a look in the mirror

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There will be no shortage of opinions on what NCAA president Mark Emmert did Monday morning. After years of watching collegiate athletics’ governing body be more bureaucratic boondoggle than effective leadership, Emmert and the NCAA acted quickly and decisively when they announced significant penalties against Penn State and its football program for its role in enabling convicted child molester and former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

Penn State will pay a $60 million fine and the football program will serve a four-year postseason band. They’ll also lose 10 scholarships a year for the next four years, limiting the roster to just 65 scholarships. Perhaps levying its strongest statement against former head coach Joe Paterno, the NCAA forced the school to vacate all victories from 1998 to 2011, stripping Paterno of the career wins crown in major college football.

“Football will never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people,” Emmert said.

This is a Notre Dame football blog and a forum I intentionally keep focused on the Irish and their opponents. Yet the Sandusky case, and Penn State’s role in it, so meticulously characterized by the Freeh report, is an opportunity for fans everywhere to take a step back and hopefully gain some perspective as they consider the football programs they support.

Certainly there will be debate about the severity of the NCAA punishment, unprecedented in many ways, and uncontested by Penn State school president Rodney Erickson. The scholarship limitations and the ability for current players to leave now or after the season are crippling to new coach Bill O’Brien, and will likely internally decimate a program that has already seen its national reputation implode.

Yet there will be football played at Penn State this season. And that is troubling.

For many people (me included), playing football was a transformational experience. While my experience on the gridiron ended after high school, the lessons I learned on the field are still ones I draw from today. The men who put their time in teaching me the game are men that I still respect. That Penn State’s key leaders would protect a monster and allow him to be around the program for more than a decade after multiple instances of highly questionable behavior with defenseless children is something that I’ll never be able to get past.

It wasn’t too many months ago that being a Penn State fan was like being a fan of Notre Dame. Both programs have a proud history. Both believe their football program was not just about excellence on the field, but also acts as a symbol of what the university stands for and represents. In Joe Paterno, Penn State had their Rockne, Parseghian, and Holtz all rolled into one. Even after that facade was shattered and Sandusky’s conviction tore away any ability for a rational fan to see differently, it took days of debate and chaos to come to the simple conclusion to remove Paterno’s statue from outside Beaver Stadium.

Throughout these sad months spent consistently reading reports that got nothing but worse and worse, I couldn’t help but wonder how I would feel if this was happening at Notre Dame.

The conclusion was simple: I’d want the program ended.

In this parallel nightmare, the Golden Dome wouldn’t be worth a can of glittery spray paint. And what to do with Touchdown Jesus? That mural would haunt a school where football and faith successfully co-exist.  The idea of Playing Like a Champion would seem awfully silly. And if the Fighting Irish wouldn’t stand up and fight for those that couldn’t protect themselves, that’s a crushing death blow that I wouldn’t want to try and recover from.

These are Notre Dame traditions. And I’m certain Penn State had just as many traditions that millions of fans also held sacred.

Collegiate athletics are a privilege, not a right. A privilege for players, for coaches, for the administrators, and the community. There’s no doubt that the penalty the NCAA levied on Penn State was a harsh one. But they gave the school the gift of allowing 107,000 people to assemble and cheer on a football program that might not deserve the right to exist anymore.

In the days and years to come, Penn State fans might look at Emmert as a villain that tried to destroy a program. Nonsense. The program was destroyed by the men most responsible for protecting it. Emmert merely did the best that he could to hit the reset button, all while understanding that the beast that is college football has been out of the cage for far too long.

“One of the grave dangers that stem from our love of sports is that the sports themselves can become too big to fall, indeed too big to even challenge,” Emmert said. “The result can be an erosion of academic values that are replaced by the value of hero worship and winning at all costs.”

For the people of Penn State, coming to grips with the fact that their program, their source of pride, and their communal identity was rotten to the core. Complaining about their future two-deep depth chart or hopes for a Big Ten title only prove that they’re missing the point completely.

Yet in today’s world of major college football, people should be weary before picking up a pitchfork. Be thankful a monster like Jerry Sandusky hasn’t infiltrated their community or athletic department. But also, be honest with yourself.

Hero worship and winning at all costs doesn’t just exist in Happy Valley.